Friday, December 16, 2011

December 16: Duke Ellington, "Take The "A" Train"

Artist: Duke Ellington
Song: "Take The "A" Train
Album: Various
Year: 1939

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While there have been many important figures throughout the history of recorded music, there are an exclusive three that can be seen as "the beginning" of the primary forms of modern music.  Though the individuals in question began their careers well before the dawn of the full-length release, their impact cannot be denied, and their names remain the most highly revered across the entire spectrum of musical preferences.  Among this elite trio, one can make a case for each being the "most" important, and yet the easiest argument of the three may be for that of the one and only Edward Kennedy Ellington; better known as "Duke" Ellington.  For nearly fifty years, Ellington stood as one of the most prominent forces and figures in the world of music, and it was his approaches and compositions that fueled not only the early days of jazz, but "big band" music and a number of other styles.  Due to both his talent, as well as his longevity, it can be easily stated that Ellington was the most important jazz musician in history, and due to this reality, his recorded catalog contains many of the most famous and well-known songs in all of music history.  With this in mind, it is difficult to single out one track as his "best" or most representative, and yet there is no other song in history that holds the same respect and place as Duke Ellington's 1939 masterpiece, "Take The "A" Train."

Though many may not be familiar with the actual name of the song, the signature central musical theme that opens the composition is without question one of the most recognizable, and to this day it retains all of its joyous swing and impact.  In the earliest recordings by Ellington and his band, a light "dance" on the piano serves as a brilliant lead-in to the rest of the band as they follow a somewhat strict formation through the song.  It is the way that the trumpets punctuate the soft sway of the rest of the horn section that instantly captivates the listener, and there is a classic, yet still appealing tone that runs throughout the entire track.  The interplay between the various horns shows off Ellington's perfect control and pacing of his group, and the solos that comprise the center of the piece range from superb sounds from muted trumpets to Ellington himself swinging the song on his piano.  Within this "passing" of the lead between the musicians, one can hear some of the earliest "formal" moves towards a jazz sound, and yet there is no question that "Take The "A" Train" fits perfectly into the "big band" sound.  Furthermore, it is the fact that the main riff on the song has such a gentle flow, yet retains a fantastic bounce which makes it so unforgettable, and it remains one of the few songs that has earned the label of "timeless."

Strangely enough, "Take The "A" Train" also falls into the category of songs that almost never were, as it was not intended to ever be recorded.  Written by the legendary Billy Strayhorn in 1939, the notes were never played until one of the most important legal rulings in music history.  In early 1940, ASCAP raised its royalty fees for performers, and a majority of artists could no longer afford to play their own compositions on radio.  During this time period, and overwhelming majority of music was "brought" to the masses in this manner, and for many artists, this ended what could have been a very fruitful career.  However, while Duke Ellington was under this ruling, Strayhorn was a part of their rival, BMI; and he was not being held back by such restraints.  The duo began working on an entirely new group of songs for Ellington's band, and music lore has it that Duke's son, Mercer, actually pulled the sheet music for "Take The "A" Train" out of a garbage can in Strayhorn's office.  Within a few months, studio versions of the song were made, the most famous coming on February 15, 1941, and most point to this version which clocks in at just under three minutes, as the definitive take on the song.  Over the next few decades, more than one thousand "known" covers of the song would appear, and it is without question the most heavily covered song in all of music history.

Adding to the legend of the song, the title of "Take The "A" Train" is a clear reference to the subway line that Strayhorn was told to take when he was first asked to meet with Ellington in Harlem, New York City.  This has led to the song being used in reference to the city across films, television shows, and other parts of popular culture, and it has become a part of common vernacular onto itself.  Yet many people are unaware of the origins of the phrase, and once one hears this beautiful composition, it is quite obvious why the song has become such a timeless piece of music history.  Oddly enough, a few years after the initial recordings of the song, there are two sets of lyrics that emerged around the same time.  While some claim that the words by The Delta Rhythm Boys were the first to be placed over the music, there are others that argue that it was a Detroit teenager named Joya Sherrill that was responsible for them.  Regardless, it was the latter that became more popular, and countless artists, most notably Ella Fitzgerald, have made the song their own in whole or part.  Even within modern music, one can find references to the songs' existence or find "borrowed" chord progressions or themes, and this cements not only the legacy of Duke Ellington, but the absolutely unrivaled importance of his 1939 song, "Take The "A" Train."


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

This may be the most joyous jazz piece ever composed or recorded. I love all the versions I have heard, and I own about 100 Ellington and Strayhorn recordings! Thank you for the essay.

Hamlin said...

train horns typically come with at least three, but it is possible to add in more to create the effect you have in mind.

zedon said...

which in turn is used to sound the train horn. The compressor is signaled to start producing more pressurized air when the system's pressure switch indicates that it is necessary.

Food Freak Frank said...

Amazing song. My college jazz band usually plays it whenever we're asked to play at dances. People just love it. I love how awesome his trumpet parts are, and their quirky yet beautiful inflections. Thanks for the history of the song!